Print this page

Stops in the name of love

The trail-blazing organist Gillian Weir will celebrate her 60th birthday in style, Barry Millington reports

Musically suspect, sartorially challenged and socially nerdish is the stereotypical picture many people have of organists. A grossly unfair stereotype, no doubt, but few organists more comprehensively negate it than Dame Gillian Weir, celebrated internationally and commanding respect throughout the profession.

The first organist to be appointed a Dame, she has been showered with honours and awards of all kinds, and was the first woman President of the Royal College of Organists. Such all-male bastions are second only to the cathedral organ loft itself in their traditional antipathy to women. That is all changing, thanks to the trail blazed by Weir.

From the start she was an outsider, by gender and nationality. A New Zealander, she came to study both piano and organ at the Royal College of Music. What attracted her to the organ? A visit to a superb classical instrument at Alkmaar in Holland. "To play Bach on it and to hear the parts was as though the inner voices were marching up the aisle with a banner. It was a truly polyphonic organ." Her triumph at the St. Albans competition in 1964 confirmed her intention.

Has she regretted the choice? "I was besotted with Mozart piano concertos, so that I regret, but not otherwise." But isn't the organ repertoire limiting? "We don't have a Beethoven with 32 sonatas, a Mozart and all that, but we do have Bach, Messiaen, Franck, the Reubke Sonata, Nielsen's Commotio and the Schoenberg Variations- truly magnificent music. But the organ has a lot of music that sounds bad because it's played on the wrong kind of instrument."

The "right kind of instrument" for Baroque music is a classically voiced organ with mechanical or tracker action: that is, the keys and pipe-openings are connected directly by a system of levers, allowing the player full control over articulation. Weir has always promoted such instruments rather than the huge Harrisons and Willises with which cathedral organists, shut away in their organ lofts, raise the roof: "They sound absolutely marvelous in a theatrical style in which we excel, portraying plagues of locusts, and it's a valid art form, but it's not really a polyphonic instrument. Bach and pre-Bach does not sound at its best."

A fine neo-classical instrument was made by the German firm of Beckerath at Clare College, Cambridge, in 1970, and it was there that Weir taught for a number of years, inspiring a generation of students. What her pupils most remember, in addition to her wide range of musical experience, formidable intellect and ready wit, is her ability to make a phrase spring off the page. This was seen in her recent profile on The South Bank Show, when, working on Bach's Toccata in C major, she transformed a pupil's leaden opening five-note phrase into a crisp, rhetorical flourish.

In the 1970's, even with the period-instrument movement underway, it was not common to hear Baroque music played with that feeling for rhetoric, with such supple rhythms and elegantly choreographed sense of movement- especially on the organ. Weir attributes that understanding to her teacher, Anton Heiller, but says it was also a matter of instinct- a conviction that all Baroque music comes from dance.

Weir's 60th Birthday Recital at the Festival Hall on Friday includes the Reubke Sonata and on of Franck's mighty Chorales, as well as Bach's F major Toccata and Fugue.

A series of three recordings for Priory on neo-classical instruments has just been released. Linn has recorded her in three concertos with the ECO and Raymond Leppard. The latter, to be released on a surround sound CD, will ensure that Weir retains her place at the cutting edge of new developments.

The Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2001